Ye Olde Language of Fantasy

I’ve started listening to the first book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, Sanderson being a conspicuous gap in my coverage of modern fantasy. I noticed early on his use of the word “ashmount” to describe what I assume are volcanoes, and that observation prompted me to write this piece on the use of vocabulary and language in fantasy fiction.

When I wrote my first fantasy novel, The Ventifact Colossus, I made a decision to write in a more modern, casual style than is typical of the genre. Some of my readers found this a refreshing positive, while others suffered the occasional jolt from unexpected words or phrases. One reader in particular, self-described as an “elderly English grammar fanatic,”  took exception to words like “passel,” “skedaddle,” “bushwhacked,” “passive-aggressive,” and “scarf” (used as a verb).  She wrote: “Who would use such expressions in that setting, especially the ones that refer to something cultural? No only don’t they fit, they’re not even from the same modern era.”

The Ventifact Colossus is set in the fantasy kingdom of Charagan, and obviously no one there is literally speaking English, nor do they have any of Earth’s cultural background. One of the unwritten rules of secondary-world fantasy (i.e. that doesn’t take place on Earth) is to avoid words that are derived from blatant cultural sources. I agree with that as a general rule, but it’s a fuzzier line than it may seem at first.

Since no one is speaking English in the world of Charagan, every single word I use is at cultural odds with its origins. I suspect readers would not disapprove of me using words like “celerity” or “amicable,” even though there were no Holy Roman or Greek empires in the annals of Chargish history.  Whence then came the roots for modern English words with Latin and Greek origins?  Should I avoid words like “autograph” and “astronomy?” “Latitude” and “famous?” “Martial law?”

I consider myself, in a linguistic sense, to be a translator of words with no grounding in English, but meant for a reader who is intimately familiar with English. To object to the word “skedaddle” is to maintain there was no word in my fictional world for which “skedaddle” was the best translation. Well, I say that there was. It’s my world! And given that I’m translating Chargish into English, I’m not bothered that “skedaddle” and “passive-aggressive” come from different eras, any more than with the temporal divide between “scoot” (mid 18th-century) and “amble” (Latin).

The rules for how to use language in a secondary-world setting are extremely vague, blurry, and (in my opinion) wide open to an author’s interpretation and style. For vocabulary specifically, I personally draw the line at explicit foreign expressions (that have not entered the English mainstream) and references. For instance, none of my characters will say “When in Rome…” or “je ne sais quoi.”  And I avoid direct anachronisms. I will not use words like “computer” or “helicopter,” along with expressions like “reboot” or “drained his battery.”  And I’m on board with not referring to listless foot-soldiers as “cannon fodder” in a world with no cannons.

Did I go too far in places when writing The Ventifact Colossus?  In hindsight, yes, a couple of times. I think I may have strayed across the line with “shanghaied” and “ritzy.” But beyond that I have no regrets for my word choices.

All of this is not to say that language, and specific words therein, cannot be used to powerful effect. I find word-choice a highly useful tool for characterization in particular. One of my characters is a hyper-intelligent, book-learned wizard, and so uses words like “hypothesize” and “elucidate” that none of the other characters would ever consider. (And in one scene, one of the less-educated protagonists specifically fails to understand some of the words used by said wizard.)  Fantasy characters, like the people of 21st-century Earth, use words and language quite differently from one another.

Now, clearly there are well-established conventions for style and word choice in the fantasy genre. There is a certain formality lent to fantasy works by the stately, old-style language that most fantasy authors use. And that slang- and modern-idiom-free prose has a side-effect (or maybe it’s the primary intended effect?) of making all the characters sound serious. Even the irreverent, wise-cracking ones. Is that a good thing?  A necessary thing?

In my work-in-progress, The Crosser’s Maze, the most irreverent character, Dranko, says the following after hearing a litany of horrifying dangers he and his friends might encounter while traversing a jungle:

“You know what all that sounds like?” Dranko interrupted. “That sounds like a bunch of stuff we’re going to fly over.”

“Bunch of stuff.”  I’m fairly certain most fantasy authors these days would forbear from using that particular phrase. And yes, that kind of slangy, casual utterance does sand the pearly sheen of Ye Phantasy Literature off of my prose. But I am merely a translator into modern English, and if Dranko had grown up speaking English, that’s absolutely the sort of thing he’d say.

Am I inviting opprobrium by stretching those conventions? Maybe. But I also think it helps my book(s) stand out from the crowd. It’s part of what shapes my “voice,” the style in which I naturally tell stories.  And if there’s one piece of universal advice out there in Author Land, it’s “write in your own voice.”

So, was Brandon Sanderson consciously avoiding the word “volcano” because of its Roman origin? I have no idea. Though I am early into his book, he has not (yet) given anything else an exotic name to avoid culture-mining. But he’s not wrong if that’s his reasoning; every fantasy author will find a place to draw their line—or more accurately, will evaluate every word near that line and decide on which side it lies. And they’ll be evaluating subjectively. I think there’s no other way to do it.

Have any thoughts about this?  Remember this blog has a comments feature; go use it to write a bunch of stuff!

10 thoughts on “Ye Olde Language of Fantasy

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  1. I think, generally speaking, the use of “olde style” English in the fantasy genre serves to remind the reader/viewer that this is a different time and place from our own, without making it unreadably foreign. Of course, having a bunch of characters in renaissance-style clothing, wielding medieval weapons, and speaking in a dialect that is somewhere between Shakespearean and Dickensian is going to be an anachronism any way you slice it, so it is up to the author to decide how best to strike that balance, and ultimately up to the reader to decide whether or not it works for them.

  2. I think that I have a preference for stories which include words and language which ground me in that world. I’m even completely happy when words are used with no explanation but whose intent and purpose is gradually revealed (or not) during the story. The Pern books by Anne McCaffery are examples I really enjoy, with their klah, firestone and agenothree.

    The degree of linguistic anachronism in phrases like ‘bunch of stuff’ probably varies over time. I imagine that there are words and phrases which we wouldn’t look at twice but which would have seemed anachronistic if Robert E Howard used them in his Conan stories back in the early 20th century.

    For me, a story such as yours which is derived from a D&D campaign gets a bye, because of the contemporary voices which originally created (or at least informed) the dialog. So language like that from Dranko sounds authentic to me for the sub-genre which VC represents to me. I guess that the majority of readers will have no idea of those origins, and I don’t know how I’d feel if I didn’t.

    Bottom line for me is that some language choices draw me into a world, and some language choices may jar me out of it. My settings for the latter are probably more liberal than your reader who you quote at the start, but more conservative than you! Choices is probably the operative word there. As you say here, you choose language to accentuate the character of each member of the cast. It is important with such a large cast and I think you do it very well – I can read dialog and pretty much know immediately who is speaking. So for you, and this world, I enjoy your choices and look forward to reading more.

  3. I found the language you used to be both jarring at times and very refreshing. In other words, while occasionally your word choice might seem odd at first and make me blink. I think I get, accept and agree with your goal of using words that best describe what you are trying to describe.

  4. I like the way that Sanderson (and others) throw in the occasional made-up word to remind us of the alienness of the world. He does even more of this in some of his other books. To me, it depends on the atmosphere you are trying to create. Tolkien used lots of archaic terminology in LotR which gives it an epic mythological feel. Your first book was much more down to earth in feel (despite having an epic story).

  5. I agree a lot with what Alex wrote. When you’re world-building, words can enhance the world or rip you out of it.

    Something like ashmount in Mistborn helps shape the world by introducing a new term. It draws a little more attention to it as well. It’s important to introduce the term as well given how much ash plays a role in the overall narrative. I don’t think Sanderson was avoiding the term volcano so much as he was introducing a new term to emphasize the constant presence of ash being dumped on the scene.

    If words jar you out of the world, then that’s a problem. For instance, I distinctly remember racing to finish the Septimus Heap series before my son did, but being horribly jarred out of the narrative when one character talked about spotting Venus in the sky on a dim morning. And I thought, whoa, this is supposed to be a fantastical world with magic and monsters and swords and alchemy and occasional time craziness, but the astronomy is the same? Later on (spoiler!) it’s revealed almost off-handedly that this IS Earth, set thousands of years into the future, but at the time and in that context, I was very confused. Maybe the author thought she was being clever and this was a big reveal — and in fact there are other references littered throughout the book like this, I discovered later — but at the time it was so unexpected it felt like lazy world-building to me.

    I’m sure there will always be some long-tail readers who have unusual objections to words or approach it from a weird context. I think as long as you’re deliberate in your word choice that’s all the reader can really ask for.

  6. The degree to which I can tolerate seeming anachronisms in a fantasy book depends on the tone of the book and the degree. I say “seeming,” btw, b/c as you rightly pointed out, secondary world fantasy is not working with the same linguistic history as our world does.

    I have no problem with G.R.R. Martin, for example, and his generous use of the word “fuck” in Song of Ice and Fire, but when I heard someone on Vikings use the word “nymphomaniac” I was taken out of it and rolled my eyes, because despite being essentially a fantasy, Vikings is also nominally, loosely, based on real world historical figures and events.

    As for things like “ashmount,” I think a fantasy writer needs to incorporate at least a little bit of making the familiar unfamiliar, and recreate the strangeness and majesty of things like mountains that spout fire.

  7. In the opposite direction, I loved Gene Wolfe’s Urth of the New Sun series, precisely because it uses a bunch of Latinate words in English at a rate that made me hit the dictionary more than once a page.

    I also recall Chaucer forcing me to look lots of things up, but it felt like he wasn’t actually writing in the same language I speak.

  8. I remember a conversation about the film Enemy At The Gates. The other person was annoyed that the British stars playing the Russian characters hadn’t bothered to affect a Russian accent.

    “So it affects your suspension of disbelief that the Russians talking amongst themselves are speaking English with English accents, instead of speaking English with Russian accents?”

    And the answer was yeah, it did.

    I looked at it as “Unless the whole movie is in Russian with subtitles so we can understand, then there’s of necessity some translation going on. And to the characters involved in the conversation, the speakers aren’t going to sound like foreigners speaking in a non-native language; they’re going to be comfortable and fluent with the language they’re using. So if we’re translating into English, it makes more sense for them to sound like native speakers, which in this case means English accents.”

    Of course, this would be an easier case to make if they didn’t have the Germans speaking English with German accents, or Ron Perlman affecting a Russian accent.

    I like to imagine a version of The Hunt For Red October, say, where whenever Ramius is speaking to other Russians, Connery speaks English with his own native accent (representing Ramius speaking fluent Russian)… but in scenes where he’s talking to the Americans (and thus Ramius is speaking English as a non-native speaker), Connery affects a Russian accent. But maybe people would find that confusing.

  9. Well, it’s well-known that Lithuanians (which Ramius was) sound Scottish.

    It’s like how when I was running a modern fantasy game, and one player (from Fort Lauderdale) wanted to be a temporally-displaced Arthurian knight, refused to change his speech patterns. “We don’t have recordings of old English. Maybe they sounded Floridian.”

    Later on this inspired me to portray King Arthur as basically Bruce Campbell from Army of Darkness.

    In literature, I like a mix. Using modern language is fine, but modern idiom I feel misses out on some of the possibilities fantasy offers. Consider A Clockwork Orange, and the made-up slang it used. Would the book or movie have been as interesting if they’d just spoke like modern British youths?

    I tried in a fantasy novel I was writing to have people from different parts of the world use different figures of speech or slang, even though it was all portrayed in English. One city had this whole cultural background I kept in my head with a love story that ended in the Romeo and Juliet stand-ins throwing themselves off a cliff into a lake, never to be seen again. “Cliff-diving” was thus a euphemism for sex, but one never explicitly explained in the text.

    I’ll take more Dranko, however he talks.

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